Within President Biden’s first weeks in office, he established the Justice40 Initiative to put a focus on environmental justice and spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities. The initiative is designed to deliver 40 percent of overall benefits of relevant federal investments to historically underserved populations, as well as track progress with an Environmental Justice Scorecard. An underserved population – also considered an Environmental Justice Community – specifically refers to condensed areas of residents that share a particular characteristic, including BIPOC, AAPI, LGBTQIA+, and low-income individuals. The Justice40 Initiative dovetails on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), which was formed in 1992, creating a whole-of-government approach to advancing environmental justice.
While you may certainly be hearing the term environmental justice more lately, it is not a new catchphrase. The environmental justice movement began nearly four decades ago, largely championed by marginalized community members who lived in America’s most polluted environments. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) points to a specific incident in poor, rural, and majority black Warren County, North Carolina that sparked this movement. In 1982, state government decided to dump 6,000 truckloads of polluted soil at a new hazardous waste landfill in the small community of Afton. Concerns raised about PCBs in the soil leaching into local drinking water were dismissed by state officials. Residents and allies responded with protests, lying down in the road to block the trucks.
While the protests did not stop the government from dumping the soil, it did prompt an inquiry into an alarming trend. Corporate decision makers, regulatory agencies, and local planning and zoning boards across the country frequently sited pollution-producing facilities in low-income, underserved communities where residents lacked funds and connections to fight such decisions. It took a whole decade of grassroots activism before Bill Clinton centered the issue during his presidency, appointing Reverend Benjamin Chavis and Dr. Robert Bullard to his NRDC transition team, centering environmental justice as an integral component of the Clinton administration’s environmental policy. The current administration’s policies have recentered the focus on environmental justice with measures that increase environmental oversight on industrial facilities, using technology to identify and map concentrated areas of pollution, and direct funding in the form of loans and grants toward disadvantaged communities.
With this emphasis, our funding team is collaborating with our consultants to help clients identify projects that benefit Environmental Justice Communities and secure available funding to improve infrastructure, reduce pollution, and protect natural resources.
The Massachusetts Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) grant program requires applicants to identify if Environmental Justice Communities or other Climate Vulnerable Populations will be involved and positively impacted by the project. The entire city of Lawrence is comprised of environmental justice populations, with the Commonwealth’s highest density of Latinx residents. As such, we helped secure a $213,418 grant with $71,169 municipal match to fund a comprehensive flood study and develop an adaptation plan for the Department of Public Works (DPW) Yard, which is located within the 100-year floodplain of the Spicket River.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has a comprehensive Environmental Justice Policy that informs its work, including the Green Infrastructure Grant Opportunities (GIGO) Program designed to prevent, eliminate, or reduce water quality impairments by decreasing stormwater runoff. Our team worked with the city of Monmouth to secure a $195,000 grant with $34,500 municipal match to retrofit Monmouth Roseville High School’s three-acre impervious parking lot with four bioretention basins to reduce stormwater flow by approximately 1.1 million gallons annually. The project will ultimately improve local water quality and reduce urban heat island impact in an Environmental Justice Community as designated by state and federal officials.
Similar provisions are included in funding issued from the Los Angeles County’s Safe, Clean Water Program (Measure W). To help the city of Inglewood move forward with a regional stormwater capture project, the city received essential funding from Measure W’s Technical Resource Program to develop a feasibility study. Through this funding, we helped the city develop and evaluate best management practices to capture, treat, and/or infiltrate runoff from areas of Inglewood, Los Angeles, and unincorporated Los Angeles County, to reduce pollutant loads and improve water quality in the downstream Centinela Creek and Ballona Creek Estuary. Our community development experts also identified several opportunities to provide enhanced park space for the area’s environmental justice population with an improved baseball field, a boardwalk over the proposed bioretention area, a dry creek channel with natural seating for park goers, new trees for shade, and educational signage to highlight the park’s new stormwater features.
With President Biden’s effort to focus on environmental justice, direct funding to benefit underserved communities, and protect our natural resources, we will continue to see a push toward projects such as these. Identifying projects that will improve the quality of life for environmental justice populations will further help source critical funds to move forward with essential infrastructure work.